Woodstock taking

I watched the director’s cut of the Woodstock movie this weekend. It was, I would say, moderately entertaining, although there was not really enough of what you’d call the best music, and way too much of stuff that wasn’t very good to start with, and which has dated badly.

Jefferson Airplane, I ask you.

Not a lot of it, actually, is really my kind of thing, but a glance at the list of artists omitted from the film (including not only The Band, but Creedence, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and The Grateful Dead) and then what was included (Sha Na Na, Arlo Guthrie, Country Joe & the Fish), and there’s a disconnect. I’m sure a lot of it came down to licensing issues and record company dicking, but you do wonder, sitting through the screeching of Joan Baez, the irrelevant ramblings of John Sebastian and the interminable noodling of Jimi Hendrix, what the editors were thinking. And Jefferson Airplane’s melody-free caterwauling is just the capper really: unbearable, unlistenable, tosh. A load of old wank, as a fine woman once said.

Which is before you get to the lengthy interview with the toilet cleaner, the extended sequence of the awful peace hippy clown Wavy Gravy acting as MC, and the ten minute interlude of chanting through the rain. Then there’s the gratuitous hippy nudity and so on.

Of course, the director was trying to capture the whole weekend in all its facets, and you certainly get a real feeling for how devastating the rain was and how utterly unprepared the organisers were for both the size of the crowd and the weather. The lateness of many of the performances was testament to the amateurish, spoiled rich kid organisation. I think everyone after The (not included) Band was technically performing on Monday, the fourth day of the three days of peace, love and, largely indifferent, music.

The performances that have gone down in legend are the ones who turned it up loud. The Who and Hendrix, Ten Years After, Santana. But apart from Hendrix, there’s not enough of these people in the film.

I went on YouTube and discovered a (mostly audio) clip of what purports to be The Band’s performance, and it seemed to be fine. Nothing wrong with it at all. And since they were objectively at the peak of their game, their exclusion from the film is strange. Were people disappointed that Dylan didn’t join them?

Anyway, it ends up being a document of the times, I guess, in much the same as the last 20 minutes of Let it Be capture London in January of the same year, and Gimme Shelter captures the death of the dream on the other coast in November. Never forget, also, that the Tate-LaBianca murders were just the weekend before Woodstock. 1969 was the full spectrum hippy fuckup.

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Recently watched on TV

I’ve been blasting through a fair few series of late. I temporarily resubscribed to Amazon Prime so I could watch Counterpart Season 2, and since I was there, I also watched Homecoming, The Man in the High Castle (season 3), The Exorcist (season 2), and Mr Mercedes (1 & 2).

I reviewed Counterpart Season 1 here and said it was unmissable, although it is in fact very easy to miss.

You have to jump through a fair few hoops to watch it. A lot of people don’t realise they even have Amazon Prime Video as part of their Prime membership, which they sign up to for the free next-day delivery option. But anyway, first you need Amazon Prime. Then you need to add the Starzplay channel within Amazon Prime. It’s quite a clever move by Amazon: a kind of mise-en-abîme of subscriptions within subscriptions. The good news is that you can get a 90-day trial of Starzplay, which is easily enough time to burn through Counterpart. Season 2 is near its end. Will it be renewed for a third? You need at least three seasons to be truly great, but we live in a strange world in which one of the best shows currently on TV is on an obscure network/service that most people haven’t heard of.

So it’s behind a paywall behind a paywall, but notwithstanding all that, it is well worth seeking out. Season 2 continues the theme of confusion and identity characteristic of the espionage genre at its best, but also begins to fill in some of the back story: we learn more about how the Crossing was created, who Management are, and how the two Howards (Alpha/Prime) became such very different people. It really is superb, on a level with The Americans, and just as challenging to watch.

While you’re on Starzplay for the 90 days, you can watch other stuff, including Mr Mercedes, which is an adaptation of a Stephen King novel. In its first season, it’s a fairly straight retired-cop-obsessed-with-old-case saga. It’s watchable enough and has an interesting cast, although Brendan Gleeson’s Irish accent is hard to explain away. Mary-Louise Parker makes an appearance, which is always nice. Then there’s season 2, which takes a more obviously King-like turn, and adds Justine Lupe as a cast regular. It all goes off the rails a bit. The main issue with something like this is that it doesn’t need 20 episodes to tell its story, and so it gets a bit repetitive and draggy.

The Man in the High Castle is actually more watchable in its third season, reaching an intense climax that leaves you gasping for another season. That said, in order to get to Season 3, you have to force yourself to watch Season 2, which is a hard watch. It’s on Amazon, so you might as well watch it, but don’t subscribe just to see it.

Homecoming is a TV adaptation of the podcast of the same name, with added star value in the form of Julia Roberts. I enjoyed it, especially the non-standard episode lengths, which make it more bingeable. There’s a lot to be said for these dramas that have shorter episodes. The story feels a lot less padded, and it’s easier to fit in one more before bedtime. Again, though, this is something you watch if you subscribe, but it’s not worth subscribing just to see it.

Amazon is very interested in what people watch first after they subscribe to Amazon Prime, in case you were wondering why they’re still employing Clarkson and Co. Even if you only watch one episode of The Grand Tour (because it is shit), you’re still a statistic. Personally, my sign-up series was Bosch, and if you’re a fan of those books, that is a reason to subscribe.

Meanwhile, there is stuff like The Exorcist, which in its first season did a good job of reimagining the film and turning it into a watchable TV series. Season 2 moves us on to a new location and a new possession, whilst keeping only a core few of the original cast. It’s pretty good at what it does, though the demon fighting scenes can get to be a bit of a drag. There is a lot less of the existential angst that characterises the film and the original series, but I still got to the end. It’s another one that didn’t need a full 10 episodes, though. And now it’s cancelled, so only Amazon knows if it’s worth a streaming service rescue. Netflix teased some viewing figures recently, such as the 40 million who watched You, which on its original network received 1/80th of that audience.

Which brings us to Netflix and what I’ve watched on there lately. Not much. Netflix, it seems to me, have a real problem with quality control, but I guess they know what they’re at. What seems from the outside like throwing spaghetti at a wall is probably a well thought out strategy.

Russian Doll is a winner, simply because it’s interesting enough to overcome its unlikeable cast of characters and nasty vibe. It also has those shorter episodes that can keep you watching through your dislike for the vision of humanity on display.

On the other hand, Nightflyers is simply terrible, an incoherent slab of dark science fiction that defies your ability to suspend disbelief. Interchangeable characters die in horrible ways on a malfunctioning ship in such quantities that it’s impossible to believe that their purported mission could continue. A ship which seems to have vast, empty spaces and at the same time an unlimited supply of crew to be killed in various horrible ways? Some kind of miraculous future power source and yet nobody ever turns a light on? Check and check. There’s a Game of Thrones style body count, but not a single character you care about, and some kind of mission you also don’t care about. It’s crap, in short, so save your time.

The only thing redeeming Netflix at the moment is Star Trek: Discovery, which in Season 2 is finally the show it almost was in Season 1. Each of the three episodes so far have been very good indeed, and as someone who’s loved Star Trek since I gave up the Cub Scouts so as not to miss it, I’m in love.

I have thoughts: 1, 2, 3

A snippet of John Roderick playing Neil Diamond

1. For example, I have thoughts about Travelers, season 3 of which just landed on Netflix. This mid-budget Canadian science fiction show delivered on the promise of its first two seasons and is definitely worth your time. I reviewed Season 2 this time last year, and my dearest hope is that I’ll be reviewing Season 4 this time in 2020. That said, this third season might perhaps have rounded off its story and given it a decent ending, about which I cannot complain. It was a proper ending with proper emotional hits, and if it were to return for a fourth season, the show has the option to completely reinvent itself with an entirely new set of host bodies. Highly recommended.

2. I also have thoughts about Joe Abercrombie’s first trilogy in his First Law series (The Blade Itself; Before They Are Hanged; and The Last Argument of Kings). One of Abercrombie’s short stories pulled me back into reading fantasy which I’d kind of sworn off of after being a bit bored by A Song of Ice and Fire. But here we are: I ploughed through the 1800 pages (!) of this trilogy fairly quickly, and only started to lose interest about 1500 pages in. Which says something. In the end though, I’m not sure whether to recommend these. Not as boring as Tolkien, nor even as dry as GRRM, these are written in an easy, engaging style that keeps you turning the pages. But the vivid descriptions of bloody and brutal fighting do start to get repetitive and the few women characters are weak. And overall, and obviously on purpose, very few of the characters have any redeeming characteristics. 

The premise is fairly familiar. There is a mediaeval type world with kingdoms and wars and a little bit of magic, the last of which is draining out of the world. And there are consequences of using magic and supposedly rules about it, which some people are cavalier about breaking.

So there are invading armies and people going off on long quest-like road trips, but in the end you can’t pick a side because everybody is horrible.

3. Finally, I have thoughts, which may become longer thoughts on something I had only the vaguest awareness of, but which came into sharp focus this morning when I was listening to the most recent episode of Roderick on the Line. John Roderick mentioned as part of an anecdote that he regularly takes part in an annual re-enactment of The Last Waltz in San Francisco, playing the part of Neil Diamond singing “Dry Your Eyes.’

And, as I said, I kind of knew this went on, but it was only at this point that I realised that it’s a regular, recurring thing that happens all over the place (Indiana, Glasgow, San Francisco), with various collectives of musicians putting it together. It’s like The Rocky Horror Show, but for Dad Rock. Part of me loves this more than I can say. I genuinely think The Last Waltz is both a brilliant documentary of one of the greatest bands of all time and also manages to be greater than the sum of its parts, so that the presence of the likes of Neil Diamond and the various cocaine buddies and the fairly shoddy afterthought of the Staples Singers somehow still manage to be brilliant. And it’s this, isn’t it, that makes people want to re-enact it? Because it’s both perfect and not perfect: it works because it does not work, as my pal Michel Serres said.

On the other hand: zombie culture and sigh sigh sigh. So, more thoughts to come, when I’ve had them, as we enter my 17th year of blogging solitude.

Rams – documentary by Gary Hustwit

Braun T3

One of the treasures of my digital movie collection is Helvetica, Gary Hustwit’s documentary about the world’s most ubiquitous (and my second least favourite) typeface. So when, a few years ago now, I saw the publicity for a Kickstarter campaign to fund a documentary about Dieter Rams, the influential product designer, I signed up.

Last week, I finally got a secret code that enabled me to watch it.

Rams was born Weisbaden, Germany in 1932, and studied architecture in the period of post-war reconstruction. You can see in his work and the others he worked with the influence of Bauhaus: that no-frills, clean lines philosophy that still has such a hold over our modern world. In 1955, he was recruited by Braun, the German consumer electronics company, and he remained their chief design officer from 1961 to 1995, when the   company was sold (to his chagrin) to Gillette.

All I really knew about Rams when I signed up was that he was a key influence for Jonathan Ive; there’s a clear line between the Braun T3 radio and the original iPod. His designs for record players, music systems and radios still take your breath away. Braun were a but like Philips: not just music systems but mixers and shavers. And Rams wasn’t solely responsible for many of their iconic designs: he had a talented team around him, but he nevertheless became the public face of their design philosophy.

And of course, philosophy is why we came. At the beginning of the documentary, Rams is shown fielding questions from aspirational designers and others, one of whom seems asks him about automotive design. Rams shrugs off the question: no particular interest: all the car industry ever wanted was to make things go faster and we don’t need cars to go faster. “What about Tesla?” he’s asked. “Aren’t they trying interesting things?”

Tesla is something of a shibboleth for me. If you’re the kind of person who thinks Teslas are cool, you go down in my estimation. Their huge, shitty, expensive cars are just another way that the rich have of shitting on the poor, and they’re a perfect example of making something that can go unnecessarily fast, solving problems that aren’t the problems our society needs to solve. 

Once again, Rams shrugged off the question. Tesla isn’t doing interesting things, he said. We need to be thinking about what transportation needs to be. What will transport look like in 50 years?

As well as consumer electronics, Rams applied his architectural training to home furnishings, and you can find designs he created in 1960 still for sale by furniture company Vitsoe. Hand crafted, modular furniture that you can keep adding to. You can start with a single (astonishingly expensive) chair and then add another to make a sofa when you can afford it. Or a small shelf unit that can grow with your requirements. I like this kind of modern stuff, but it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste.

What I found interesting about the film was that, while Rams’ influence on Jony Ive was mentioned early on, Ive himself doesn’t appear, and Rams makes no comment on Apple’s work. But there is an implied criticism made of excessive consumerism, the inherent wastefulness of insisting on new designs every year, and the ways in which the digital is taking over. He speaks of how sad it is that people walk around with their faces pressed to their screens these days. In not so many words, then, Apple and Jony Ive get short shrift.

While I’d have liked the film to have dwelled more on some of the Braun designs (the lovely watches didn’t even get a mention), it is (probably rightly) more interested in the man himself and his principles, and his slightly grumpy take on the modern world he helped to create.

Podcasty Update

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Some of the key players in The Teacher’s Pet

Some I enjoy

Omnibus! With Ken Jennings and John Roderick

In the genre of two-blokes-talking-about-shit, the extempore king is John Roderick. In this twice-weekly podcast, he sits with his friend, Jeopardy record-breaker Ken Jennings, and talks about a random collection of subjects. Come for the discussion on Albanian Bunkers or The Fourth Crusade, and stay for the joyful digressions and lame jokes.

Fortunately… with Fi and Jane

There’s not much I miss about listening to BBC Radio, but I mourned the loss of Jane Garvey and Fi Glover from Five Live, back in the day. The station, frankly, was never the same again. You try to like Nicky Campbell and Victoria Derbyshire, but you just can’t. Even that reference dates me. Anyway, two of the finest radio voices have an excellent podcast, which is currently number one in the genre of two-women-talking-about-shit. My only criticism is that it’s too short. It’s a podcast, it can be longer.

Heavyweight (Gimlet)

I’ve still not quite forgiven Gimlet for cancelling the excellent Mystery Show podcast, but I grudgingly return to the network because I enjoy this. The title means nothing, the theme song is irritating, and the production style is PBS lite, but it is entertaining nonetheless. Jonathan Goldstein is very funny, and he joins a number of people who want to revisit moments from their past and put things right. Sometimes it labours the point, but it can also often be poignant as well as sweet, and the one-liners are often laugh-out-loud funny.

Serial (season 3)

This was a return to relevance and form, after the lacklustre season 2. This year, they spent a lot of time examining the justice system in Cleveland, Ohio. If you didn’t already know America was broken, this ought to convince you. Just nuke the whole site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.

The Teacher’s Pet

Now. There are way too many podcasts about women being abducted and murdered. Way too many. That said, the dogged reporting here about Lyn Dawson’s disappearance from the northern suburbs of Sydney, Australia, over 35 years ago, is fascinating and horrifying. It’s not just about the possibly murdered wife of a popular rugby player and high school teacher, but about the culture of casual exploitation of teenagers by their teachers in the Sydney school system. Your jaw will drop in astonishment (and I do not use that word lightly). The show is produced quite well. It labours the point a bit, and gets repetitive (a lot), but I get it: the police and public prosecutors needed the pressure. Oh, and Australia? Broken.

And some I’ve given up on

Up and Vanished

I gave up on this because I needed to listen to fewer podcasts about missing, possibly murdered women. Season 2 of Up and Vanished was about the case of Kristal Reisinger, who went missing from Crestone, Colorado in 2016. Partly, this is a brilliant advertisement for not legalising weed: almost every person who gets interviewed seems to be a totally fucked up stoner waste of space. Partly, this is another reminder that America is broken. When you hear about the local police and who they are and what they have to deal with over how many square miles, you realise that if you wanted to murder someone, you’d do it here. And partly, turns out, this is an example of how sometimes podcasters need to edit more. I gave up because the show seemed to lose sight of Kristal’s case and had decided instead to dump unedited and hard-to-hear phone calls with fuckups who keep repeating themselves endlessly, on a loop, like all stoners do.

The Black Tapes

I’ve previously written here that I don’t generally enjoy “comedy” podcasts, and it appears I have a similar issue with fiction in this format. I listened to Homecoming (now a TV series on Amazon), and thought it was all right (though I’m not rushing to renew the Amazon subscription). Similarly, I thought season 1 of The Black Tapes was all right. It’s a kind of radio version of those paranormal “found footage” movies, but it has a number of issues. The cast are unconvincing, often delivering lines woodenly. And the case itself ends up running around in circles, covering the same ground again and again. You end up thinking that there was a much better, and shorter, drama serial buried inside the three seasons of this. I gave up at the point in Season 3 when the presenter went to Istanbul, then took one phone call and went back home. It all starts to feel like padding, like content shat out in order to be a vehicle for ads. Honestly, I feel like a mug for continuing beyond season 1.

Tom Petty – An American Treasure

There’s a story they tell about Tom Petty breaking his hand in frustration during the recording of the track “Rebels” on the Heartbreakers’ album Southern Accents. Continually comparing their recording with his original demo, Petty left the studio after their latest attempt and punched the wall. This story is a lesson for perfectionists everywhere, because the truth was that there was nothing wrong with their latest take. Eventually the problem was “fixed” by replacing the organic human drums with a drum machine.

Well, it was the 80s.

I never really liked Southern Accents, because it sounded like it was made in the 80s. As much as I love Springsteen, I listen to Born in the USA and Tunnel of Love with gritted teeth (ears?) because record production in the 80s was a shitshow. The perfect storm of novel new studio toys and the dreaded click track. The grid. I mean, I’ve seen them do “Don’t Come Around Here No More” with a live drummer, so I blame bloody Dave Stewart for the drum machine nonsense.

My personal theory is that people had been whispering in Tom Petty’s ear since 1979 that Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch wasn’t very good, or at least not very subtle. Step forward, Jimmy Iovine. I don’t think Petty himself believed that, but I can see how it might have been easy to blame Stan rather than, say, the drugs when things weren’t going well in the studio. So when it came to recording his first solo album, Full Moon Fever, Petty used a session drummer. And then again on Wildflowers, after which Stan was out, replaced by Wildflowers session guy Steve Ferrone.

I can imagine that Stan was the kind of guy who wants to go on partying when everyone else wants to go to bed. Or wants to go on partying when everyone else wants to start looking after themselves and heads to rehab.

Anyway, this collection. You get to hear “Rebels” before it was ruined, which is nice, though not “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, which I’ve realised I can’t watch these days without crying.

The conceit here is that this is a journey through Tom Petty’s career not including the long established live set standards, the familiar signposts of “American Girl” and “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Free Fallin’”, “Learning to Fly” etc. This isn’t even as-selected-by-Tom-himself outtakes, because that was the 1995 boxed set Playback. Instead, this feels like a last trawl through the archives by his friends and family — those who, unhampered by Petty’s perfectionism, can say, here, this stuff is worth a listen.

In other words, don’t start here if you’re new to Tom Petty.

You get to hear the version just-before-they-nailed-it of many songs, versions perhaps with slightly less push, or sometimes with just a little bit more air and swing. Or you hear a live version which uses a different approach than they eventually settled on; or just outtakes which for whatever reason didn’t make the final release.

Over four hours and ten minutes, you hear Petty and his group evolve from that ebullient and prickly bar band of the late 70s to the sardonic and bewhiskered elder statesmen of latter days. Available in two versions, Deluxe and non-, I’d say that the 26 track non-Deluxe would probably suffice for most.

Counterpart — Review

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A still from the preposterous 1974 cold war movie, Who?

~spoilers~

One of the most haunting films I ever saw was Who?, which was a Cold War movie about a scientist who was injured in a car accident and abducted by the East Germans. Later, he is returned to the West, but has undergone such extensive surgery that the Americans don’t believe he is their abducted scientist. It’s not just that he’s had plastic surgery: his whole head is encased in a metal mask. It was a somewhat over the top and ridiculous way to tell a story about identity, but it stuck with me, even though I haven’t seen it since the 70s.

Kim Philby’s first wife, Litzi Friedman, was a communist agent, operating in Vienna when he met and fell for her. That Philby, one of the notorious Cambridge spies, was married to a known communist from 1934 till their divorce in 1946, did not seem to affect the decision to put  him in charge of a section of Soviet Counterintelligence and later head of the SIS Turkish station and then chief British Intelligence representative in Washington.

I say all this as a preamble to my review of Counterpart, which is the best TV show on an obscure network you’re ever likely to find. Fittingly, given the show’s themes, you’ll only be able to access it in the UK from the 28th of this month, via the Starzplay Network, which in turn you’ll only be able to access through Amazon Prime Video. It’ll be an additional subscription on top of your Amazon subscription. Wheels within wheels, worlds within worlds.

*Or, you could get it off the back of a truck.

That there is a prominent intelligence operative who is compromised by his wife, who is an infiltrator from the “other side”, should not be surprising in an espionage show, which is what Counterpart is.

It’s set in Berlin, whereto an international cast of characters have descended because Berlin is the hub, the interface between rival factions, as it was during the Cold War. As in all espionage texts, you find yourself in a wilderness of mirrors, unsure who is who, who can be trusted, or whether anyone’s motivations are really pure.

J K Simmons plays an office drone, who has been engaged for nigh on 30 years in mundane drudge work for an organisation he little understands. He carries sealed papers into a locked room and reads out codes to someone on the other side of the glass. He ticks boxes. He applies for promotions, doesn’t get them, then goes home, shoulders slumped, his breathing out of rhythm. He meets a friend by the river and plays Go, the Chinese strategy game in which you try to box-in your rival’s tiles with your own. He visits his wife, who is in a coma, in hospital, and reads poetry to her.

On the other side of the glass, it turns out, is not another country in the East/West Berlin sense, but another world. This other world was created just a few decades ago, a mirror of the original, and until that point identical. But then, once it was created, slight changes began to appear, events unfolded differently, and 30 years later it’s a very different place indeed.

How would powerful people react if there was a duplicate of this world at the other end of a tunnel? Think about the greed and venality that they already exhibit. What if you knew that there was a recently discovered oilfield you could exploit? Or a cure for a disease that had no cure in your reality? What if you could somehow weaken or destroy the other side so you could just step through and take what you wanted?

To prevent and control this kind of thing, strict rules are put in place. To cross over, you have to be issued with a visa; you’re photographed against a backdrop on the way in and on the way back, as a way of checking that you are the same person. You enter a code and wait for the green light.

Office drone Howard Silk is called into the office, not for a promotion, but because someone has come over from the other side and will only speak to him: it’s the other Howard, who believes he can only trust himself.

Counterpart_EW_Image[1].JPGThis Howard is different. He moves, breathes, and speaks differently. He’s an experienced operative, knows how and who to kill, and he knows what’s going on in a way that our Howard never has. An assassin has infiltrated this side of the tunnel, and is targeting individuals on a kill list. Operative Howard needs more time to track the assassin down, so suggests that he and Drone Howard swap places.

Such is the set up, but there is so much more. The season-long story arc is gripping and tense, as the various plots unfold, leading to an episode 9 climax that brings these worlds to the brink. What happened to make the worlds diverge? Why does one side harbour resentment and suspicion against the other? There are also individual episodes and moments along the way that are devastating. One of the key questions concerns the two Howards: why are they so different? What happened along the way that meant one became a stone cold killer and the other lived anonymously in the shadows? And if they swap lives, do they become each other? Unmissable.

Ryan Culwell – The Last American

6EQ UJ5

is anybody out there alive

can you hear me

can you hear me

out on the highway

on the dark side of the moon

I got my wheels spinnin’

can you hear me

bang real loud and get down low

make a little love on the radio

dial it in boys and let it ride

send a little call out to heaven tonight

can you hear me

can you hear me?

I’ve waited a bit to review this in hopes of gaining some perspective, but after three months the lead track still haunts my mind. It keeps unpacking itself, more like a movie than a song, and the album is something like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, a series of short films about broken and disappointed people. Culwell gives voice to a series of characters, in varying states of hurt, defiance and confusion in a world which is both timeless and timely. A documentary about both the America that is lost and the America that is.

The opening line of “Can You Hear Me” refers to the “wow” signal picked up by a radio telescope in 1977, a moment of clarity in the background noise of the universe, which came from the direction of Sagittarius. That’s how the song begins. It sounds like electronic noise, a falling note. Then you pick up what sounds like a Springsteen song you’ve never heard. “Bang real loud and get down low / Make a little love on the radio”. This places the song immediately in my wheelhouse, making me remember the many nights I spent shifting the dial of my AM radio under the bedclothes, listening to the drifting signals refracting off the ionosphere, the KGB signal jamming, Radio Moscow, Radio Luxembourg, Radio Caroline and the World Service.

Culwell writes a scene from an unfilmed 70s sequel to American Graffiti. Our narrator is on the road, speaking in CB Radio jargon, being followed by a motorcycle cop, but also thinking about the murder of Eric Garner, who kept saying “I can’t breathe” while being choked to death by cops:

“When Eric Garner was murdered I started pacing around the house repeating, ‘I can’t breathe,’ but the words had nowhere to land so I just kept repeating them for weeks. My wife probably thought I was losing my mind,” Culwell tells Rolling Stone. “It’s not the kind of song you write in a day. My only regret is that I run out of air after singing ‘I can’t breathe’ 10 times while Eric Garner found the strength to say it 11 times. You can’t love your neighbor as yourself if you’re not even listening to him.”

Like a drifting radio signal, the song shifts from being a Springsteen banger to a protest song, and drifts back again, finally fading away with the message, “I’m at threes and eights”, which (I believe) is CB code for best wishes, or indicating that a channel will now be clear.

So goes the album, a camera eye that dips into people’s lives and out again, sometimes coming through clear, sometimes drifting off into the static, or the “old, weird America” of the basement tapes. Culwell’s voice can sound like he’s a mad old bluesman or hillbilly screaming from the bottom of a well (on “Dig a Hole”, for example) or sitting at a piano in a church, or strumming on his back porch. In “Tie My Pillow to a Tree”, when he sings, “Make some room for me”, his voice breaks with polite uncertainty.

I smell like rosin

I taste like leaves

would you scoot on over

make some room for me

books I have read

lovers I have known

when they forget me

oh where will I go

I set sail on seven oceans

there ain’t no country with my name

I wrapped myself in pleasure

and I kissed myself with pain

And if you have this record on in the background, you hear some really pretty songs, that kind of folky, polite Americana. And then you check what song it is you’re listening to, and you realise, for example, that it’s called “Dog’s Ass”.

The title track comes over as an interview with a political pollster, as the subject proclaims, “I am the last American / On this earth / I’d like to quit this talkin’ / Get back to work”.

guess I’ll vote the ticket

like i always do

if I can figure out

who to stick it to

you can keep asking your questions

if you think it’s going to help

do I believe in God

mr you go straight to hell

I got my old man’s heart

and a broke down Chevrolet

The Last American is a powerful, uncomfortable record, not the kind of thing you can have on as background, but the kind of music that compels you to listen, to pay attention to the words. I can’t think of the last time I was driven to look up the lyrics of an album like this. I’d put it on the level of Darkness on the Edge of Town. It’s an immense achievement.

Alternate Routes by Tim Powers and Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers – two reviews

alternate-routes-9781481483407_hrAlternate Routes by Tim Powers

Tim Powers has been writing about the ghosts of Los Angeles since his 1990s Fault Lines series, which started with Last Call in 1992, and finished with Earthquake Weather in 1997. Back then, people were huffing ghosts like drugs, absorbing them, being possessed by them. 

With his LA-set novels, Powers likes to pick a location with some weird history and weave his urban fantasy ideas into it. In the case of Earthquake Weather, he chose the Winchester Mystery House, which was built by the widow of the firearms company founder, and constructed over decades without building plans. In his more recent Medusa’s Web, he took us into Old Hollywood and Bunker Hill, and places that aren’t places populated by people who aren’t who they appear to be. To these locations, Powers links mythology and literature: the Fisher King, Troilus and Cressida, the cult of Dionysus.

The setting for Alternate Routes is the LA 405 freeway, with a side order of Mulholland Drive. This time, the fantasy elements are woven into the eddies and currents created by traffic patterns, and the ghosts are those who died on or near the freeway, and the mysteries concern what happens when you take an exit that isn’t there, or catch a voice from a car radio that you weren’t supposed to hear. The mythology is the labyrinth and the minotaur: Daedalus and Icarus.

Los Angeles is a fascinating sprawl of a city, and Powers clearly finds endless inspiration in its no-place weirdness. But this book, like Medusa’s Web (2016), feels somewhat peremptory and by-the-numbers. As if, one hopes, he’s just getting all these ideas out of his system. As a fan, I still bought this on the day of publication and read it quickly, but this novel does not reach the heights of his best work, Declare, The Stress of Her Regard, and Hide Me Among the Graves, The Drawing of the Dark – all of which have a historical setting away from the West Coast of the USA.

Terrible cover, too. I’ll doubtless come back to it to reassess, but for now I’m disappointed.

32802595Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

This third novel by Becky Chambers, after The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Close and Common Orbit, takes place in the same universe, at more or less the same time as the other novels. This time, the focus is on the human crew of the Exodus Fleet, the refugees from Old Earth, who have been living on the generation ships built to flee the environmental disaster we’re currently creating. To the other alien races they’re a curiosity, sometimes viewed as a charity case, with very little to offer in terms of technological innovation.

There are several focus characters, and the chapters flip between them in a regular rhythm. One is an ethnographer from a different species, who visits one of the ships in order to learn more about the humans who have not left the fleet. Others live and work aboard ship, experiencing day to day life or going through personal crises. There’s a Caretaker, who looks after the dead as their bodies are recycled; an archivist, who is there to record the important events on board; a teenager who is disillusioned with life in the Fleet; and an engineer who faces potential unemployment due to the introduction of outside technology. All of these people lead separate lives, and have individual narratives, which gradually intertwine to become one.

And this is the genius of Becky Chambers. For a while, I was thinking that, like Tim Powers, she was producing work that wasn’t up to her best, not quite as engaging as her debut or its brilliant sequel. But then, towards, the end, I found myself reading through tears as the emotional impact of this story hit home. While A Close and Common Orbit weaves two narratives into one powerful whole, this novel takes thinner threads and delicately entwines them until you are caught in the middle of the quietly devastating web, wiping tears from your eyes.

 

Wonderboom

wonder - 1Concerned as I am about privacy and the abuse of that privacy by companies like Amazon and Google, I was never in the market for a smart speaker. I was of course more interested in the Apple HomePod, but it’s not a product that would fit my particular life.

For example, the idea that you would have a speaker, or a pair of speakers, plugged into the mains in a room that you would listen to music in, is not something that happens round here. If music (or a podcast or the BBC Radio player) is on, it’s because I’m up and about, moving between rooms. I don’t want my speaker to be tethered to a particular spot. I have this anyway: there’s a decent speaker box sitting under the TV I can use for music in the living room (almost never), and I’ve got a pair of great music speakers in the conservatory with a Bluetooth adapter plugged into the back (used more often, but still relatively rarely).

What I most often want is a speaker that can move with me, or can be paired up with another speaker and play simultaneously in two rooms. Multi-room audio is something you can have up at the higher end, but again, something plugged into the mains in one place is not a scenario that would work for me.

So I want my speaker to be portable, truly wireless, and fairly robust. Which is where the UE Wonderboom comes in. I was skeptical that something as small as this could sound good, but it really sounds pretty decent. Whatever artificial means they use to boost the bass works very well for the kind of music I listen to. It doesn’t sound weird or get on your nerves after a while. It’s good for voices, and it’s good for country music and 60s/70s rock and soul.

It sounds great and is loud enough that I’ve rarely had it above 50% volume, and the battery life is very good indeed. In terms of range, you can take your phone quite a considerable distance away without losing the connection. This is ideal for me, for example, at our place in France, where I am frequently preparing food in the kitchen, then walking around to tend the barbecue in the garden.

I got my first one a year or so ago, and it impressed me enough that I wanted to get a second so as to pair them up. Which I now have. Pairing is a simple matter of holding down the central logo button for three seconds, until you hear one of its noises, and then waiting for 10 seconds or so while the speakers pair. The volume is automatically equalised between the two speakers, and you can control it with either speaker or your connected device. And you don’t have to download a special app to achieve any of this. Smart.

Now you can have stereo, which is fine, but the real beauty is in having the “radio on in every room” effect, where I can have one in the kitchen, and one out in the conservatory or the garden. And because it’s Bluetooth and not Airplay, no wifi network is required, which is great in France, because we don’t have wifi there.

Amazon sell a pair of these for £123, but you can buy two separately for about £60 each, and if you monitor the price you can do even better.

This, for me, is the perfect combination of sound quality and convenient portability, and I couldn’t be happier really.